It’s finally not as cold here in New York. I’ve been here for almost a month now and the weather hasn’t been too kind. Last time I left a Brooklyn based show, it was Clipping., the wind was blowing cold off the Atlantic, and snow was in the air. This Saturday, it was thankfully less punishing and there was a sense of elation in the air post show. Or maybe it was just me, my heart so full of the sets I had just seen. Pallbearer, Marissa Nadler and Kayo Dot all reminded me, in their own way, why I love seeing music played live and why I love, even with the amount of genres I listen to, the darker sides of music. All three sets were more than just proficient; they had a musician’s touch, an earnest and powerful conviction in self expression and its strength.
Prior to the show, Pallbearer made it clear that this sincerity among the darkness was no accident or a trick of the stage lights. When speaking of the album’s cover work, the band said that:
The title [of the album] is being referenced in a negative way—it’s an emotion that we’re actively against. We feel that the state of mind at large is weirdly selfish. There’s this lack of empathy and sincerity, and reactionary hatred. It seems to be a vague building up of “every man for himself”, just dog eat dog, and there’s no real reason—I mean, it shouldn’t be this way. And we as musicians, we try to be sincere and honest, whether there’s something negative about it—like, we try to accept our own flaws and be honest about them as well as our own strengths and try to do the same for others, too.
You don’t just try to look for the negative in it—find something to be positive about and try to spread positivity despite being a darkly-themed band. The reasons our themes are dark is because there’s plenty of dark stuff to pull from the world around us. Say we’re all pretty glass-half-full kind of people, and it’s a world where the glass is half empty. The artwork, the music, everything we do is sort of our reflection on how fucked up everything is, but with this glimmer of hope that things will change.
With this mind, Kayo Dot make perfect sense as an opener for this show. Toby Driver‘s vision has always been tinged with dark themes but it’s hard to deny the strength and individual aspirations which run through Kayo Dot’s career. Their set, as usual, was masterful. It’s hard to doubt their skill as musicians and the astounding way in which they translate their often complicated song structures into a live setting. Whether playing in Tel Aviv at a tiny bar (where I had last seen them) or to a somewhat empty Music Hall of Williamsburg, Kayo Dot is one of the most impressive live acts currently working.
It’s the blend of fury and reserved strength which make them so, I believe. They opened with the soul-crushing “The Mortality of Doves” from Coffins on Io, and Driver’s bass so sweet as to draw tears from my ears. In general their sound was monumental, huge waves of oppressive/delicate sound which erupted from the instruments of the four players. The drums were especially prominent as the band dove back into their discography, bringing forth improvisation and some of their heavier works out of the catalogue. They were the anchor of it all but also strangely above it, blistering in their execution and style.
Following them and, perhaps, channeling more of the fragile side of things was Marissa Nadler. Signed to Sacred Bones Records and active since 2000, Nadler is an obviously capable musician of which I had no prior knowledge. Her decidedly dark take on Americana folk (and some hints of the more primal country) was an instant winner for me. Coupled with her beautiful voice and captivating stage presence, she was a perfect setup to Pallbearer since, as she said with her own words, she was very much “the calm before the storm,” perhaps even bracketed by storms with Kayo Dot preceding her.
But now it was time for the storm. The venue had already filled up and, as Pallbearer took the stage, erupted with gleeful cheers and hungry howls. Pallbearer in turn wasted no time, immediately erupting into one of the groovier tracks from Heartless with “Thorns.” Their sound was instantly captivating, with everything mixed to just the right degree (barring a few early issues with the backing vocals which were later fixed). The quieter segments were heart rending in that space, seeping into the intervals created by the thundering riffs that had just echoed there.
The crowd responded in kind and swayed to the massive main lead of the track. Followed by “Devoid of Redemption” from Sorrow & Extinction and the eponymous “Heartless”, the first leg of their show culminated in the masterful “The Ghost I Used To Be” from Foundations of Burden which had just been requested via several shouts from the audience. This discographic eclecticism is apparently part of how Pallbearer view their musical progression and what their older music means in context of the newer:
People like whatever they like. I would like them to be listening to everything, of course, but that’s not really necessary, either. I think it would make the most sense if you started at the beginning—you can hear how the music transforms. At the same time though, if you started at the beginning and expect to continue that sound…I think there are people who have done that and are, like “Fuck Pallbearer, man, they don’t sound like this anymore.” Even though Foundations is what made us more well-known, we made a lot of people in the doom scene who were aware of Sorrow and Extinction want more of that. And, it’s like, that was us just getting started. Those songs were really our only songs. There was one we got rid of because it was sort of like a proto-Pallbearer song, but the rest of those were like literally the first five songs we wrote. So, of course it’s going to change—that was all our material at the time. So if people keep expecting stuff from 8 years ago, they’re in for a bad time.
The absolute highlight of the show came soon after with “Dancing in Madness” and “I Saw the End,” a perfect coupling if there ever was one. The first is a meat-y monster of a track, with the catchiest riff on Heartless smack in its middle. The crowd responded immediately, headbanging turning into full body swaying as the riff’s power (all the more intense for being played in a live setting) took hold of their bones and jigged them around. The latter is one of the more emotional tracks on the album, with its heart-wrenching chorus and effective backing vocals. Placing both of these tracks in the middle of the show was probably no mistake; Pallbearer deftly reached out and captured the already willing audience with this one-two combo. From there and until the brilliant encore, it was all a matter of maxing out that captivity and building on it.
By the time the band took their first, contrived steps off the stage (part of the by now tired encore tradition) the crowd was raving for them to return. When they finally did, with the surprising choice of “Foreigner,” the Music Hall of Williamsburg was at their palm of their hands. Through the entire show, the reality of what drives Pallbearer to make music was incredibly clear: this is what they love. Their albums, their live sound, the passion which they bring to the table all circle back to the simple fact that music runs through their veins and their hearts. Being sincere to that, the source of their inspiration and delivery, is of the utmost importance, for them and for any bands trying to make metal. In their own words:
It’d be so boring to do the same thing. I can’t do it. What we wrote is what we wrote, like that’s just how it sounds now. If we have to play these songs for the next few years of my life, we don’t want them to be boring—we want them to challenge me. We were listening to a podcast with the dudes from Opeth, and they were saying that, even if it disappoints the fuck out of people they’d rather continue to have fun writing and playing music than get stagnated with it. If you feel like your music is a form of art rather than a product, then you’re going to make whatever you feel like making, otherwise you’re just being disingenuous.